Moving on: from cabin fever to the world free from weight bias
By Dr. Michael Vallis, August 2020
I am from Canada, which is a generally safe and friendly place. I
actually am from Eastern Canada, which is known to be friendly even by
Canadian standards. Yet, since March we have had this sense that we
can’t trust our neighbours and when we encounter someone in the
grocery store walking down the aisle that we are in we feel threat and
Those who are new to this social isolation and the general increase in the perception of threat are looking forward to getting back to normal. Only, there is no normal to go back to! We aren’t out of the first wave and we are told the second wave is a certainty, and we are told that we can expect more viruses like this. So, let’s consider what a new normal might look like. Is it possible that our new normal can be better than our old normal?
Individuals living with obesity are, in real ways, experts at social
isolation. The bias and stigma against obesity are such that those
living with obesity do not feel safe around others. They have
developed ways to avoid being in places where the likelihood of
experiencing bias is high.
Grocery shopping late at night to decrease the chances of someone criticizing what is in your basket, ordering clothes online to avoid trying things on in public, watching Netflix to avoid the embarrassment of fixed seats in movie theatres. Should I go on?
The perception of threat naturally produces the emotion of anxiety. This is how the brain is wired for survival. Threats must be dealt with before they cause harm. Humans are social beings so our threat response to social danger (humiliation, criticism) is equal to our threat response to physical danger.
In this way the experience of living with obesity in a biased world is the same as the experience of living with the risk of COVID-19 infection. Maybe, just maybe, we can draw this parallel between social isolation during COVID-19 and social isolation due to threat of prejudice for some benefit.
One unfortunate consequence of our social survival instinct is that we favour others that are like us. And if something goes wrong in a relationship it is easy to blame that on any differences between people.
So, we are starting to see that in some circumstances those of Asian descent are being biased against due to COVID-19. Do you know that the Spanish flu did not start in Spain? It was called the Spanish flu because Spain was the first country to admit to its existence. Boy, bias is easy to create.
Bias originates from the instinctual aspects of human functioning.
But as mankind has evolved as a species, we have moved beyond the
instinctual to develop intellectual and moral functions as well.
In fact, the brain is a developmental organ. What I mean by this is that as new brain structures have developed over evolution old brain structures do not stop functioning. The new functions are developed on top of the old systems.
When it comes to psychology this is an important issue. It really means that we have two psychological systems operating. The primitive original instinctual brain functions are located in the midbrain. This is primarily an impulsive and emotional based system (“I want it; I want it all; I want it now”). Then, in the prefrontal cortex (the surface of the brain just inside your forehead) we have the executive system. This is the logical, intellectual system that is capable of problem solving, reflective thinking and delay of gratification.
Much of the time we experience tension between these two systems.
What do you feel like? What should you do? Notice that often the
answers to these questions are not the same. The emotion-based system
wants immediate gratification and thinks automatically (as in: “looks
like me – good; doesn’t look like me – bad”). The logical system looks
to principles and values (as in: “don’t judge a book by its cover; we
all are equal as humans”).
Social isolation will be temporary; we are beginning the process of getting out of our houses. As we re-enter the world, I wonder if we can choose this to be a different world? Bias is an issue we can address. Bias against those of Asian descent is unjustified; Black Lives do Matter, and bias against those living in larger bodies is equally unjustified.
As a Psychologist, I sometimes encourage people to change their circumstances when they change their behaviour. For instance, imagine you are a smoker and you are about to change jobs. I might ask permission to raise the possibility, if the person is interested in becoming a non-smoker, of using the new job to help. That is, go to the new job as a non-smoker. Tell people at your new workplace that you don’t smoke and act like a non-smoker.
This helps because it allows new habits and it changes the way people perceive you. COVID-19 might be like a new job. We can go back out into the world acting as if it is a new world. This is important right now. Being Asian does not mean you caused COVID-19, being black does not mean you can be treated differently and living in a larger body is not a sign of weakness.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company